Crossroads Scholarship

Washington City Paper | August 4, 2006
An up-and-coming bluesman in 2006 usually has two fates available to him: be musically unadventurous enough to eventually land a beer commercial or be self-consciously wacky enough to land on a hipster blues label. You can blame public radio, the Internet, or the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System for this turn of events: The Old Weird America that used to spit out freaky folk musicians by the Smithsonian compilation–ful died when the isolated communities where sonic visionaries could remain uninfluenced by their contemporaries became hopelessly plugged-in. These days, it’s nearly impossible for artists working within such a venerable genre to honor their elders while finding their own voices.

Scott H. Biram hails from Austin, Texas, a town hardly immune to the siren call of the record industry’s conventions, but the way he’s crossbred blues, rock, psychedelia, punk, and metal suggests the only voices he’s listening to are those inside his head. Graveyard Shift is raw—nasty, funky, fucked up, “Who blew out the PA?” raw—and its warped vocals, hardscrabble guitars, and relentless four-counts on what is credited as a “homemade footstomp board” would appropriately horrify tourists in blues mausoleums like Memphis or New Orleans.

Not that Biram’s got time to worry about freaking out purists—on Graveyard Shift’s opener, the unsettling “Been Down Too Long,” he spews an existential laundry list as reminiscent of PiL-era John Lydon as John Lee Hooker: “Most times I can’t sleep at night/I just drive the highway up and down/Sometimes I can’t eat a bite at all/Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew.” The sentiment is as old as the blues itself, though while everyone from Mississippi guitarist J.B. Lenoir to the Doors has taken a crack at singing about actually having the blues, Biram’s rendering is remarkable, his voice punished by Beasties-worthy distortion while a vicious, garage-punk chord progression threatens to leap out of the speakers and set things right, forcefully if necessary.

The no less abrasive, downright Gothic “No Way” has lyrics that are pure Freud: “There ain’t no way/I’m going to put my foot in there/That big black pool I’ve been dreaming about,” he sings, his grappling with the hex of sex as dark and powerful as the imagery in Leadbelly’s “In the Pines.” Still, Biram’s melancholy doesn’t smother “Lost Case of Being Found,” an existential musing about lost love in a “shit-ass town” that scans like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in ballad form. Biram even has fun with “Have No Fun,” a wry thumbnail sketch of the one that got away. “She’s gone/And it’s a cryin’ shame” may be ham-handed, but the song’s casual humor and breezy structure pluck at heartstrings without snapping them.

When Biram does overwhelm, the culprit is sheer over-the-top machismo. After all, we’re talking about a man who played a show less than a month after being hit by a tractor-trailer as well as the guy who founded the First Church of the Ultimate Fanaticism—not sure what that is, but it seems to involve whiskey. “Reefer Load”’s country honk is catchy, but do we need a tacky, overly dude-ish tale of a trucker puffin’ la “from Chicago down to San Antone” so far into an LP? “Church Babies,” which calls bullshit on fundamentalist Christian breeding, is similarly misguided; references to “jism” suggest he’s not all that interested in making his case to anyone who disagrees.

Still, there’s an uninhibited sense of fun on the Graveyard Shift that transcends argument. Blooze nerds might take issue with Biram’s tossed-salad approach to the genre, but if anyone can save this particular music from trad bores like Eric Clapton, or equally tedious postmodernists like Bob Log III, it’ll be this “dirty old one man band.”

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